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The North Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA) in California, covering more than three million acres, includes Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties, and portions of Marin and Solano counties. The area forms a slightly crooked rectangle, approximately 100 miles long and more than 50 miles wide. A winemaking mecca since the mid 19th century, today the area features about 800 wineries, nearly half of the total wineries in the state. American Viticultural Areas are to appellations of origin as grapes are to fruit. AVAs are delimited grapegrowing areas distinguishable by geographic, climatic and historic features, and the boundaries have been delineated in a petition filed and accepted by the federal government. In size, AVAs range from extremely small to extremely large. AVAs are one kind of appellation, but not all appellations are AVAs. An appellation can also be a political designation, such as the name of a country, the name of a state or states, the name of a county or counties within a state.

 

Napa Valley

Established in 1981, the Napa Valley AVA covers 225,300 acres of land, encompassing almost the entire county of Napa and is home to 400 wineries. Within that area, there are 45,000 acres of vineyards planted. Cabernet Sauvignon is king in Napa Valley with a total of 18,200 acres, and Chardonnay is the most widely planted white wine variety with 7,300 acres. Napa produces about five percent of total California wine.

The Napa Valley is bordered by two mountain ranges—the Vaca on the east and the Mayacamas, rising well above 2,000 feet and bordering the adjacent Sonoma County, on the west. Mt. St. Helena (4,343') stands sentry at the northern end of the appellation where the valley ends at the town of Calistoga. This is the warmest locale in the region. About 30 miles away, near the city of Napa, the southern end of the valley opens to San Pablo Bay, an interconnecting arm of the San Francisco Bay system.

A uniquely diverse winegrowing appellation, the Napa Valley formed—much like the rest of the North Coast—through a geological evolution active with colliding tectonic plates (large pieces of the earth's crust), volcanic activity and changes in sea level as water alternately advanced and retreated over the southern end of the valley several times. As a result of these geological events that took place over a 60-million-year history, the Napa Valley has soils of volcanic, maritime and alluvial origin, with more than 30 different types identified.

Defined by mountain ranges and a proximity to the Pacific Ocean, the Napa Valley enjoys a temperate climate with a long growing season of sunny, warm days followed by cool evenings. Within the Napa Valley AVA, there are 14 other AVAs with distinct microclimates and terrains formed by a varied topographical configuration of hills, exposures and elevations. The Napa Valley AVA is also part of the North Coast AVA.

  Sonoma County

The appellation of Sonoma County totals more than one million acres of land of which 60,000 acres area planted to winegrapes. The county includes 13 distinct AVAs as well as being a part of the North Coast AVA. The larger Sonoma Coast AVA has with 517,000 acres. Chardonnay takes the lead as the most planted variety with 15,100 acres, and Cabernet Sauvignon is the next most planted variety with 11,900 acres. The area produces about eight percent of California's total wine production.

Sonoma County is 52 miles wide and 47 miles long and is currently home to 260 wineries. On the east, Sonoma County borders Napa Valley along the Mayacamas Range. About two million years ago, volcanic eruptions deposited a series of ash and lava called the Sonoma Volcanics throughout much of Sonoma and Napa Counties, especially along the Mayacamas Range. The western edge of the County is the California coastline along the Pacific Ocean. Sonoma County borders Mendocino County in the north and Marin County in the south.

Luther Burbank called Sonoma County "the chosen spot of all the earth as far as nature is concerned." A vastly diverse range of topography, including numerous small valleys with distinct microclimates, the Russian River and the Pacific Ocean, all characterize the region. A moderate climate with a cooling maritime influence, Sonoma County embodies ideal and diverse grapegrowing weather: from valley to hillside, moist ocean coast to dry inland, and cool southern regions that complement the warmer, more northern areas.

  Mendocino County

Mendocino is an approved American Viticultural Area with 275,200 acres. The total area planted to vineyards is 16,700 acres. About 4,300 acres are planted to Chardonnay, 1,900 acres to Pinot Noir, and 2,600 acres to Cabernet Sauvignon. Approximately 25 percent of the total vineyard acreage in Mendocino County is certified organic. There are 10 official American Viticultural Areas in Mendocino County. There are 56 wineries and over 250 growers harvesting approximately 62,000 winegrape tons, representing about two percent of the state's wine tonnage.

Located directly north of Sonoma County and about 90 miles north of San Francisco, the Mendocino wine region is bounded by California's Coastal Mountain Range, the Pacific Ocean and the great northern redwood forests. A mountainous region, it is part of the seismically active Coast Range and is also the place where the San Andreas Fault reaches the ocean. Almost 60 percent of the county is blanketed with coniferous forests. Most of the vineyards are located in the inland valleys in the south and east areas of the region. The vineyards growing white wine grape varieties are located on flood plains and alluvium along the Navarro and Russian Rivers. Most of the red varieties are grown on the bench lands above.

  Lake County

The western portion of Lake County comprises the North Coast AVA. It encompasses the Clear Lake AVA, which in itself has 168,900 acres of land, the Red Hills Lake County AVA, and High Valley AVA. Within Lake County, a total of 8,530 acres are planted to winegrapes. This is expected to double in the next few years, as many new vineyards are being planted. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted variety with 3,300 acres. Sauvignon Blanc is the second with 1,790 acres. Fourteen wineries are located in the region. About 20 out-of-county wineries purchase Lake County grapes from independent growers. Lake County crushed 32,000 tons in 2005, about one percent of California's total winegrape tonnage.

Lake County surrounds Clear Lake, the largest natural lake in California. The vineyards are planted throughout the county, from the agriculturally rich valley at 1,370 feet elevation (lake level), to the rocky red volcanic soil at more than 2,000 feet elevation around Mt. Konocti—a dormant volcano in the Pacific Rim chain. These elevations provide cooler winter conditions and a later start to the growing season. Summer growing conditions are suitably warm to ripen the grapes and the elevation allows rapid cooling in the evening. Few grape pests can tolerate the altitude and cool climate. Lake County growers are committed to sustainable farming and participate in year long educational programs to this end.

  Marin & Solano Counties

Marin County has 80 acres of vineyards and 13 wineries. Bordered on three sides by the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, the area grows mostly the early maturing Pinot Noir and some Chardonnay. The northeastern half of Marin is officially in the North Coast AVA. A small portion of Solano County, forming the southeast tip of the North Coast AVA, has three AVAs, covering an area of more than 21,200 acres. It too receives the cool maritime influence with ocean breezes flowing through the San Francisco Bay and the Delta.

The vineyards and wines of California's North Coast are recognized worldwide for their quality and diversity. There is a sense of place that identifies the region as well as the people. From the days of the Gold Rush of 1849, this part of the state has embodied the pioneering spirit and innovation that still energizes the California wine business.

 

(Wine Institute sources contributed to this article.)

 

Editor's note: Links to the websites of thousands of lodging and dining options in the North Coast region can be found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory. Also in the Resource Directory are links to the sites of most, if not all, of the wineries in this region.

 

 

Viticulture in California's vast interior valley, nestled between the state's coastal mountain range and the Sierra Nevada, is actually two valleys: the Sacramento Valley in the north and the San Joaquin Valley in the south, which includes the Delta area located in the middle where the two valleys meet. Although the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys are not designated American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), the region produces 70 percent of the state's winegrapes and is home to 15 AVAs. The Sierra Foothills region is an AVA that runs adjacent to both valleys on the east side, along the Sierra Nevada Mountains. About 0.5 percent of the winegrapes grown in the state are produced from the Sierras.

American Viticultural Areas are to appellations of origin as grapes are to fruit. AVAs are delimited grape growing areas distinguishable by geographic, climatic and historic features, and the boundaries have been delineated in a petition filed and accepted by the federal government. In size, AVAs range from extremely small to extremely large. AVAs are one kind of appellation, but not all appellations are AVAs. An appellation can also be a political designation, such as the name of a country, a state or states, or a county or counties within a state.

 

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The Sacramento Valley runs for approximately 120 miles from Red Bluff in the northern end of the valley to the city of Sacramento. Bordered by the Sierra Nevada to the east and the Coast Ranges to the west, this level, sun-drenched, agriculturally rich area is unaffected by ocean influences. The region has about 8,000 acres of winegrapes. Chardonnay is the most prominent variety and Zinfandel follows. There are some 16 wineries, and approximately two percent of the total state winegrape crush comes from this region.

 

The Delta

The Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley meet at the river delta about 100 miles east of San Francisco, roughly encompassing portions of Solano, Yolo, Sacramento and San Joaquin counties. Here Chardonnay is also the most widely planted variety with Zinfandel a close second.

Within the Delta area, the Lodi AVA has been a major winegrowing region since the 1850s. Grapes were always part of the local landscape, growing wild, dangling from the trees along the riverbanks. Early trappers called one stream "Wine Creek," due to the abundance of wild vines. The river was later renamed the Calaveras River, and flows through the southern part of the Lodi area. Today, the Lodi AVA is farmed by more than 750 growers. About 60 wineries are located in this picturesque rural area known for its older head-trained grapevines. Like the other Delta wine areas that include the Clarksburg AVA with its 10 wineries and 9,000 vineyard acres and the Merritt Island AVA, Lodi is also defined by its proximity to the Pacific Ocean and the coastal gap where the northern and southern coastal ranges meet at the San Francisco Bay. As temperatures rise in the state's vast interior valley, cool maritime breezes are pulled directly through the Delta area, creating a distinctive climate that has allowed premium winegrapes to thrive for more than a century. Lodi has a Mediterranean climate, with warm, dry summers and cool, moist winters. Deep, sandy clay loam soils predominate.

 

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One of the richest agricultural areas in the world, the San Joaquin Valley measures about 220 miles in length and 40 to 60 miles in width, extending from around Stockton south to Bakersfield. There are five million acres of irrigated farmlands planted to cotton, grains, vegetables, fruits and nuts. The majority of wine, table and raisin grapes in California are grown in this valley. French Colombard is the leading variety. Chardonnay is the second most planted grape. The red winegrape with the most acreage is Zinfandel. By far the largest producing area in the state, the San Joaquin Valley accounts for more than 44 percent of the total state winegrape crush. There are more than 30 wineries and four AVAs.

The Sierra Nevada mountains form the eastern border of this grand expanse of land, and the lower, more irregular Coast Ranges define it to the west. Irrigation of this land with limited rainfall comes from two huge reservoir and canal systems that bring water from the length of the Sierras to the valley farmers. Although grapes have been grown in the region for more than 100 years, there has been a continuing advance in grape and wine quality due to viticultural refinements, including new varieties, rootstocks, trellis systems and irrigation techniques. These advancements are helping to transform the San Joaquin Valley from a generic into a varietal wine producer.

 

Sierra Foothills

sierra foothills highlight SMALLThe California Gold Country is also a wine region. Originating back to the gold rush days, the first grapes were planted in the 1850s, as a lot of wine was needed to quench the thirst of the Forty-Niner population that migrated to the state at this time. The Sierra Foothills AVA stretches from Yuba County in the north to Mariposa County in the south, along the western portion of the Sierra Nevada, with Amador, El Dorado and Calaveras counties in the center. Within the entire Sierra Foothills AVA, which totals 2,600,000 acres, there are five other AVAs: California

Shenandoah Valley, El Dorado, Fair Play, Fiddletown, and North Yuba. The total winegrape vineyard acreage in the Sierra Foothills AVA is 5,700 acres. Zinfandel has the largest amount of plantings, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay, Merlot, , and Barbera. More than 100 wineries are nestled throughout the nooks and crannies of the foothills, with vineyards generally located between 1,500 to 3,000 feet where elevation creates a four-season climate. The shallow, mountainside soils create moderate stress on the vines, producing low to moderate yields and high quality.

The Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, the interior of California, are the agricultural heartland of the state. Winegrapes are only one of the bountiful crops grown in this immense expanse of farmland. Lodi, Solano and the rest of the Delta area differ from the vast valley regions in their proximity to the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay influence of maritime breezes. The Sierra Foothills could be described as an interior AVA, but its climate and soil conditions starkly contrast all aspects of those viticultural areas on the extensive valley floor below.

 

(Wine Institute sources contributed to this article.)

 

Links to the websites of thousands of lodging and dining options in the Central Valley and Gold Country regions can be found in Taste California Travel's Resource Directory. Also in the Resource Directory are links to most, if not all, of the wineries.

 

Each year, tourists visit wine regions throughout California to explore the state's 3,000 wineries and the diverse array of cultural attractions. From gardens, art museums, great seasonal cuisine and artisan foods to natural hot springs, spa treatments, beaches, redwood groves, golf, and boutique shopping, California wine country offers travelers many diversions between visiting the wineries.

With so much to choose from, some of the state's regional winery associations have shared their "insider" tips for having great experiences while touring their wine regions. The following are recommendations for three ideal days in Amador County, Lodi, Monterey County, Napa Valley, Paso Robles, Santa Cruz County and Sonoma County from these travel and hospitality experts.

Amador County

Nestled in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, two hours from San Francisco, Amador County boasts 37 small family wineries, some of California's finest old-vine Zinfandels, gorgeous scenery and many captivating Gold Rush-era attractions.

Begin your tour in Jackson visiting the wonderful Amador County Museum, which boasts a treasure trove of memorabilia from the Gold Rush days. Then, head east to Pine Grove to visit Indian Rock Grinding State Park, located in a small valley 2,400 feet above sea level. From Pine Grove, travel northeast to the charming Gold Rush town of Volcano for dinner and a night's stay at the historic St. George Hotel. On your second day, explore the Black Chasm Caverns in Volcano and then head west to Sutter Creek to savor its quaint Main Street shops and Gold Rush-era buildings. Enjoy a casual lunch and local wines at Susan's Wine Bar, then visit Sutter Ridge Vineyards to taste one of California's few Tempranillos. Thrill-seekers should be sure to book a tour of the Sutter Gold Mine. From Sutter Creek, head north to Plymouth, gateway to the wineries of the Shenandoah Valley. Join the locals for some delicious ribs and Zinfandels at Incahoots, than bed down at the nearby Plymouth House Inn.

On your third day, buy a snack at the gourmet Amador Vintage Market in Plymouth before setting off for the gorgeous scenery and charming wineries of the Shenandoah Valley. Be sure to stop at Montevina, one of California's venerable producers of classic old-vine Zinfandel, and Shenandoah Vineyards, a producer of an array of top-value Amador wines. Also check out Avio, a new winery specializing in Italian varietals, and Dobra Zemjla, a quintessential Amador producer of "Big Reds." For more touring information, visit Amador Vintner's Association.

LodiSchool Street Bistro  SMALL JPG 575 431 0 80 1 50 50Lodi's School Street Bistro

Lodi Wine Country is a hidden jewel in California wine country. Begin your journey in downtown Lodi Stroll past boutique and antique shops as you make your way to School Street Bistro, owned by local winemaker, David Akiyoshi and wife Trisha. Later you can check in at the beautiful, Tuscan-inspired Wine & Roses.

Just a short walk from your room at Wine & Roses is the interactive Lodi Wine & Visitor Center where you can walk through the demonstration vineyard, learn about winegrape growing and winemaking, find out more about a number of local wineries and everyone's favorite part—taste a selection of over 200 Lodi wines. See Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission for more visitor information.

Spend the next day tasting wine in Lodi Wine Country, making sure to stop at Jessie's Grove Winery, a historic farm property highlighting the history of Lodi. Then head to Phillips Farms so you can experience the Michael-David Winery and grab a snack at the farm fresh café. Next, stop by Chocoholic's Chocolate Factory in Clements to practice chocolate making first-hand with self-guided tours and chocolate tasting in their gift shop. Be sure to also check out the thousands of acres of nature preserves surrounding Lodi. A paradise to avid birders and nature lovers, the river-rich basin and marshes are home to hundreds of species of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and fish. The Cosumnes River Preserve is a favorite among visitors and offers year-round hiking trails and an educational visitor center. During the winter months, the Sandhill Crane come to nest, offering individuals an opportunity to view this magnificent bird. Lodi celebrates the arrival of the crane each November with the Sandhill Crane Festival featuring nature-related educational classes, bus tours and entertainment.

Monterey County

Each winegrowing area within Monterey County's 40,000 acres of grapes offers unique wine tasting experiences. Start your first day with the convenient tasting venues throughout the popular vacation areas of Monterey and Carmel-by-the Sea. From there, check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which Zagat Survey rated as the nation's top aquarium and the third best attraction in the U.S. Next, get ready for some excitement with kayaking or whale watching. End your day with fabulous cuisine at one of the restaurants near Cannery Row while watching a beautiful Monterey Bay sunset.

On your second day, visit the intimate tasting rooms in the Carmel Valley Village. Spiritual seekers will find inspiration at Esalen in Big Sur, or by walking the labyrinth near the mouth of Carmel Valley. Mid-afternoon, go tide pooling along the rocky shore, ride horseback over open meadows, or hike in one of the many nature preserves. Explore Monterey County's ninety-nine miles of Pacific coastline and the world-famous 17 Mile Drive. Then, treat yourself to one of the many pampering packages at one of the world-class spas, such as Pebble Beach or Quail Lodge. Finally, golf at one of these resorts or one of over 10 other wonderful golf courses in the area.

Head over into the Salinas Valley on the third day. First, speed enthusiasts will want to take in a race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Then literature buffs can visit the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas to experience a journey through John Steinbeck's world, experiencing Steinbeck's works and philosophy through interactive, multi-sensory exhibits for all ages and backgrounds, priceless artifacts, entertaining displays, educational programs, and research archives. Wrap up the afternoon with a tour along River Road and visit one of the many new tasting rooms that have recently opened. End the evening by staying at The Inn at the Pinnacles, located adjacent to the Chalone Winery. Check in your bags at The Inn and then hike through the Pinnacles Monument. End your evening by listening to the coyotes and eating a gourmet meal at this exclusive inn. For more information on Monterey, visit The Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association.

Napa ValleyDomaine Chandon oysters SMALLTreat yourself to oysters on the patio at Domaine Chandon.

Napa Valley is a renowned world class winegrowing region that was the first recognized AmericanViticultural Area (AVA) among California's 107 AVAs. Though most known for full-bodied, signature Cabernet Sauvignons, the 400 wineries in the Napa Valley produce a range of wines including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot among others.

Start your tour visiting a winery off the beaten path, such as the Hess Collection on Mt. Veeder where within its three-story winery houses a renowned collection of modern art. Have lunch at Domaine Chandon's restaurant with sparkling wines from this well-known winery in Yountville. On Highway 29, visit the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville for an educational tour. Unwind overnight at the Meadowood Napa Valley Resort, site of the annual Auction Napa Valley, or one of the many bed and breakfast inns dotting the valley.

Day two begins with exploring wineries along or near the Silverado Trail, such as Groth, Duckhorn, Clos du Val, Stag's Leap Winery, Rudd or Miner Family Vineyards. Make a reservation to do a wine blending seminar at Conn Creek Winery. Enjoy a gourmet picnic lunch on the lawn at V. Sattui Winery's delicatessen, then take a break from wine tasting and visit the charming town of St. Helena for some shopping. Dean and De Luca is a purveyor of wine country eats and accessories and there are several unique antique stores and boutiques.

Begin day three with a visit to the historic Rhine House of Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena. Next, take a tram ride up to Sterling Vineyards' hilltop winery and take in the view of Napa Valley on their patio. Travel to nearby Calistoga to shop or visit one of the several historic spas for a mud bath, massage or natural hot springs soak. End this day with a cooking class and dinner at the Culinary Institute of America. For more information, visit Napa Valley Vintners.

Paso Robles

Paso Robles Wine Country is centrally located between San Francisco and Los Angeles along California's Central Coast. The region is home to 180 wineries and more than 29,000 vineyard acres, making it the state's third largest wine region. More than 40 wine varieties are grown and produced here. From Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Zinfandel to Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne, you can find a wide selection of wines.

Begin your stay by exploring the wineries as well as the thriving community. Between winery visits, take a stroll through the downtown City Park, outlined with boutique shopping, olive oil tasting, and several fine dining restaurants.

On the second day, take a quick 30-minute trip to the coast; just 30 minutes puts you on the sandy beaches where you might spot elephant seals. Next, tour the majestic Hearst Castle San Simeon State Historical Monument. Choose between five tours, ranging from the basic "Experience Tour" to the upper floors and gardens to a special tour at night. Tour reservations are required to guarantee the tour, date, and time desired.

On your third day, check out the WineYard at Steinbeck Vineyards, where you can discover Paso Robles Wine Country aboard a vintage jeep. The winegrape growers lead this excursion through the vineyards and talk about planting a vineyard and the growing season. More wine touring information is at Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.

Santa Cruz County

With easy access to the San Francisco and San Jose airports, the Santa Cruz Mountain tasting rooms in Saratoga and Los Gatos are a good place to start your tour. Also, stop by nearby historic Cooper-Garrod Vineyards, Savannah Chanelle, and Testarossa. Hakone Gardens, an 18-acre Japanese-style garden and koi pond, is along the way, and one can enjoy a concert at Montalvo Arts Center and dine at Sent Sovi before a comfortable overnight stay at Saratoga Inn.

Day two takes you up and over the Santa Cruz Mountains. Putter along Bear Creek Road, enjoying David Bruce Winery and the Chateau at Byington. Cross over Highway 17 to explore Summit Road and a tasting at Burrell School. Next, pick up lunch supplies at the Summit Store before venturing over the other side to Soquel. Enjoy dinner at charming Cafe Sparrow in Aptos near the coast, before cozying up in the quaint Historic Sand Rock Farm Bed & Breakfast.

Start your third day with a walk on the beach prior to the tasting room and gallery at Bargetto Winery. Plan on lunch at Aldo's on the Santa Cruz Wharf and then head to Storrs Winery to sample more wines. Next, spend some time sipping the sparkling wines at Equinox. Finish your day on the Santa Cruz Wharf with a visit to see the sea lions and do wine tasting with Beauregard Vineyards. Touring information is at Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association.

Sonoma County

Sonoma County's world famous and diverse wines would make this premium winegrowing region an unbeatable destination in itself, but it also offers weeks worth of amazing visitor experiences that have nothing to do with wine—a rare combination.

Begin one day in the Russian River Valley tasting the area's Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. End up in the picturesque town of Healdsburg, where you can enjoy boutique shopping and a leisurely lunch in the town square. Spend the afternoon out at the coast, stopping along the way in Dry Creek Valley to sample Zinfandel. At Bodega Bay, walk along the beach, go whale watching, or just enjoy the view. End the day with a fresh seafood dinner and an ocean sunset. Stay in one of the area's many bed and breakfast inns or drive back to Healdsburg for a laid-back luxury hotel experience.

Day two, enjoy wonderful hiking in Jack London State Park and view the museum dedicated to the writer, before experiencing yet another distinctive wine area, Sonoma Valley, known for its Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Tour vineyards, vibrant gardens and buzzing wildlife sanctuaries at Benziger Vineyards, which offers visitors a 45-minute adventure in winegrowing via a tractor tram tour of their estate in Glen Ellen. Then head to historic downtown Sonoma for shopping and restaurants. Unwind at one of the region's numerous spas before spending the night in Sonoma.

Get up early on your third day to go hot-air ballooning, or have a more leisurely morning browsing a local farmer's market. Pick up some picnic supplies and head out to a winery in picturesque Alexander Valley for an idyllic wine-country lunch. In the afternoon, enjoy one of Sonoma's more than 20 golf courses, or rent a bike and travel down the region's back roads.

Maps of Sonoma County wineries can be found at Sonoma Country Vintners. The Sonoma County Tourism Bureau is a great source for lodging and restaurant information at Sonoma County Tourism Bureau.

 

(Wine Institute contributed to this article.)

 

Editor's note: Links to the websites of thousands of lodging and dining options in wine country, as well as the websites of the wineries themselves, can be found in Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.